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reed magazine logoWinter 2008
When the Beats Came Back Group in front of City Lights

Philip Whalen ’51, Jerry Heiserman, Thomas Jackrell, Portland, Oregon, July, 1963 ©Allen Ginsberg Estate

The Six Gallery event became a legend in short order—not just for “Howl,” but for the whole five-shot salvo from the gang of poets. Within weeks, each of them was invited to give readings around town. “From that night on,” said Snyder, “there was a poetry reading in somebody’s pad, or some bar or gallery, every week in San Francisco.”

Then, in early 1956, Thomas Parkinson, a literature professor at UC–Berkeley and one of the first academics to grasp the broader cultural significance of the emerging Beats, organized a reprise reading for the Six Gallery poets, with Rexroth again as emcee, for people who had heard of the October ’55 event but missed it. This encore reading was held at the Town Hall theater in Berkeley on March 18, 1956.

It is from that event that the earliest-known audiotapes of “Howl” were made, and which Reed’s “Howl” now leapfrogs in the queue of literary history. From the perspective of 52 years, five weeks might not seem like much, but there are some notable differences between the Reed and Berkeley recordings, both in the content of the tapes and the ambience of the events.

Most significantly, at the Berkeley reading, Ginsberg delivered the entire four parts of “Howl.” For that reason alone, the Berkeley tapes are historic, regardless of technical drawbacks. As it turns out, it is precisely on Part I of “Howl” at Reed (the only part he completed) that Ginsberg’s reading shines most.

At Berkeley, the poets’ burgeoning notoreity preceded them, and the audience was raucously expectant—a little too raucous for Ginsberg at the start. On the tape, you can hear that several people in the audience are clearly hammered—whoopingly so; others are camping it up for the microphones; everyone seems giddy with anticipation of “an event.” Rexroth, the emcee, sounds a little sloshed himself, and a bit too “on.” Early in his reading, we hear Ginsberg admonishing the crowd: “I’d like to read this without all the hip static,” and finally, “all right now, cut the bullshit!”

At Reed, of course, there is none of that. For one thing, there’s no “scene” on campus or in Portland to speak of (though Snyder and company sometimes called it “Poetland.”) On campus, Snyder was well-remembered by faculty members such as Lloyd Reynolds and David French, but was hardly a household name among students (yet); Ginsberg was completely unknown. In the campus Quest, the listing tellingly omits their names, indicating only a “Poetry Reading, 8 p.m.” at Anna Mann. Their relative anonymity allowed them to observe and interact with their listeners in a way that was fast becoming impossible in the Bay Area. While in Portland, Snyder commented on these differences in a postcard to Whalen, who was back in Berkeley. “The hardness and cleanness of Reed students I’ve talked to is gratifying and in a way still better than anything in the Bay Area, devoid of all self-pity & all camping, & certainly capable of some creative effort.”

So, might another tape surface to supplant the one held by Reed’s library as the earliest recording of Ginsberg’s “Howl”? Probably not. Then again, America’s brief literature is already replete with examples of “newly found manuscripts,” and, given enough time and chance, even the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Songs of Milarepa eventually came to light. For now, let’s just think of this recording as a clear sweet slice in the compositional life of a great 20th-century poem, an acetate howl coming to us chorus after chorus out of the ether, an aural visitation from the Beat Generation.

John Suiter is the author of Poets on the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades ( He is currently at work on a biography of Gary Snyder.

reed magazine logoWinter 2008